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Anatomy of a Dissection

Illustration extracted from Dutch botanist and anantomist Frederic Ruysch’s Thesaurus animalium primus, 1710, via

A few months ago, I dissected a squid. The squid was unsurprisingly strange: all tentacles and ooze and sets of sharp hidden teeth. But the dissection was strange, too. The longer I dissected, the less clear my agenda seemed to be. I poked around in the squid with a flagging sense of purpose and the nagging feeling that I was missing something important. I’m not sure what went awry, but I am unsettled. And I want something better to say. A few months ago, I cut open a gelatinous sea creature to take a look inside. What, exactly, was I doing?

But we all know what it means to dissect something. It is a procedure, a way of looking, an act of investigation. It is commonsense inquiry and there’s no reason to be confused. If, at its conclusion, the squid is still foreign — and the encounter an unanswered question — then I must have done something wrong.

So I want to take another look, as a matter of pride. I’ll marshal my best methodology. I’m going to draw a slit down my dissection and put my fingers in its innards. I’m going to take a scalpel to its organs and remove them one by one. I’m going to set the pieces out on a table, label each in intelligible script. I will be systematic, sterile, and observant — the most careful dissector I can manage to be.

And if, at the end, I still don’t know what to say, I suppose I’ll have to admit my failure. Sometimes the pieces don’t add up. Sometimes the parts remain discrete.

The logic

When a body is mysterious, you cut it open. You peel back the skin and take stock of its guts. It is the science of an arrow, the epistemology of a list. There and here and look: You tick off organs, muscles, bones. Its belly becomes fact. It glows like fluorescent lights. The air turns aseptic and your eyes, you hope, are new.

The object

Before the dissection, I’d never thought much about squids. If pressed, I might have said that they belong to dark places — that they are prehistory, deep-sea depths, a sailor’s nightmare. That they move like legends and live like shadows. That they are at least as imaginary as real.

I don’t think it’s unfair to ask: How can you expect to really look at an animal like that?

Research

To prepare myself, I watched another dissection — of a giant squid by a research team in Australia. They found it washed up on the beach somewhere, a rare appearance from a deep-sea depth. Giant squids live so deep in the ocean that they’re almost never seen, not even with cameras. That far down, the equipment either freezes or implodes from the pressure.

An appearance like that deserves some fanfare, it seems to me, but the dissection set was decidedly mundane: just a simple silver table, a single cameraman, and an awkwardly PowerPointed slideshow. The researchers didn’t even wear gloves. A viewer could forget that they were in the presence of something rare. A viewer could be excused for watching in their living room and unceremoniously stifling a yawn.

The supplier

Small squids aren’t nearly as hard to find; an Internet search turns up dozens of suppliers. And they are surprisingly cheap. Eight dollars secures a body, a cardboard tray in which to dissect it, a scissors, a tweezers, a magnifying glass, and a dissection manual. The kit arrives expediently in a clean cardboard box. The process is accessible and convenient and, when you think about it, fairly disconcerting.

The first cut

The first cut is the scariest. Before the first cut, the squid is still whole, still clean and separate, and you aren’t implicated in anything. Once you break the skin, you have to reckon with your purpose. What is this body and why are you breaking it open?

I’m reminded of a novel I love, about a sensible woman who finds a cockroach in her house. It doesn’t belong there, so she tries to kill it, but only succeeds in cracking its shell. The injured roach sits in front of her with crumpling antennae and pus oozing out of the wound in its back. The pus transfixes the woman. She has never thought much about roaches, but as she looks at its insides, she suddenly wants to understand. She thinks about roach ancestors, roach bodies, roach logic, and, in an attempt to erase the distance between them, puts her tongue to the bug’s shell and licks. But the pus makes her faint, and, when she wakes up, the cockroach is gone.

The first cut feels a little something like that. It anticipates revulsion, stokes a kindling of desire, breaches a boundary without promising answers in return. It’s sensible to be apprehensive. You need courage to wield that sort of knife.

Surplus

Underneath the skin, a squid’s body is almost entirely beige so that, in practice, dissecting one mostly means distinguishing between different beige body parts. After I removed everything the manual told me to remove — beige veins, beige kidneys, a tiny beige heart — I sat poking at its empty beige flesh. And, suddenly: there. Tucked into a thin fold along the squid’s back, I found an organ I’d missed, a small bean-like lump. The lump looked like all the other organs except for the presence of three bright scarlet spots. I checked my manual again, to no avail. It couldn’t account for the appearance of this new organ and its inexplicable red spots. This secret between the squid and me: an enigmatic dissection code. Our shared scarlet surplus.

Violence

There is a point in a dissection — after everything has been seen, each essential part identified — when all that’s left is play. A squid corpse presents many options for mischief. You can peel off the skin in big, satisfying strips. Or hack off the tentacles and arrange them in clever little sculptures. Or pop the ink sac, watch the flesh turn black, and wring the body like a rag over your dining room table.

I’m speaking hypothetically, of course. I don’t endorse this kind of play. It can turn a person into another kind of creature, and probably begs another word entirely.

Preservation

When I was finished with the body, I wanted to remember my squid, so I pickled it in a big jar with water, salt, and vinegar. But my technique was slipshod and the solution grew cloudy almost immediately. In a half-hour the squid was a vague bloated blob and I was no longer sure what I was trying to preserve. Since there wasn’t much to display, I stashed the jar under my bed next to a forgotten pair of shoes. It’s poetic, actually. An appropriately invisible place of honor.

Failure

The squid sits gathering dust, and, on the inside of the jar, mold. Yesterday I received a thick catalog in the mail. A reminder from my squid supplier of the other things I might dissect. The catalog is straightforward and lovely, with no unnerving tangle of purpose. It forgives me my confusion and the things I might never know. My squid is disintegrating in its homemade brine, I am grateful, and I have an idea of what to do next. A nod to pieces that don’t add up and parts that remain discrete. I think I’ll buy a rat.

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